Preston-le-Skerne (County Durham)
The village of "Preston-Le-Skerne" is first recorded in 1091 as "Prestetona" in the Feodarium Prioratus Dunelmensis and as "Preston super Skiryn" in 1384 in a charter roll held at the British Museum. The name is Old English in origin and probably means the "Tun" or dwelling of the priests. Suggesting an early ecclesistical role for the site or more likley that the village and manor was owned by the Church. Despiute the fact that it is first recorded as a medieval settlement, the discovery of a number of prehistoric flints at Heworth House in 19087 show that people had lived in the area for a long time previously.
The village is one of several hundred medieval villages located all across Durham whose origins can most likely be traced to the period 900 to 1100AD. Many of these villages have not survived to modern times as settlements or communities but have through various historical processes seen reductions in their populations and number of dwellings. Such villages are usually known as deserted or shrunken medieval villages. There are many reasons for the desertion or shrinkage of a village ranging from climate, economy, war or the whim of a landowner to improve the view from his or her front window. Durham has on record some 114 deserted or shrunken medieval village sites of which Preston-le-Skerne is one of the best surviving examples.
In the case of Preston-le-Skerne the surviving earthworks of the medieval villages' houses and field system can clearly be seen in around the modern farms of Preston Manor Farm and Preston East and West Farms. These farms should be thought of as the successful parts of the village which have been rebuilt and continuously occupied over time. It is likely that Preston-le-Skerne was visited by two periods of desertion or shrinkage. Firstly in the mid to late 14th century when climatic conditions were very poor, there were several years of failed crops followed by famine and plague. Many villages were simply abandoned at this time with less land being kept under cultivation to supply a smaller population. Secondly in the 18th and 19th centuries improvements in agricultural practice such as selective breeding, enclosure, crop rotation and mechanisation all inevitably lead to rural depopulation as fewer people were need to undertake the same amount of labour. It is likely that Preston finally shrank to the three established farms at around this time.
The village now survives only as earthworks which are on the south bank of the old course of the River Skerne, and cover an area of c.400m east-west and 160m north-south. The earthworks consist of banks and ditches dividing the area into small crofts, with buildings represented by smaller enclosures and house platforms. There are some large undressed stones in the banks, but no other structural traces. The wide ditch which forms part of the south boundary is probably an old trackway.
Preston is not the only deserted settlement in the immediate area; for example others can be seen at Heworth, Elstob and High Grindon.
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